I Give It a Year is about what you'd expect from the warped mind of Dan Mazer — Sacha Baron Cohen's close collaborator on Da Ali G Show, Borat and Bruno. Which is to say: a raucously funny comic romance that's deaf and blind to the blithe spirit of romantic comedy.
It's not as though Mazer isn't reaching for something a little more grown-up and sweet with his first feature as writer-director. Yet it's hard to know what to make of this ungainly creature, which drifts along making semi-serious gestures toward comedy of manners while excreting regular pellets of bad taste along the way.
I Give It a Year begins where most rom-coms wrap, with a wedding — this one between Nat (Rose Byrne), a neurotically efficient ad executive, and Josh (Rafe Spall), a dreamy writer with few administrative and fewer social skills.
But if this setup promises a new spin on a tired premise, it also boxes in the plot, limiting the outcome to one of two options: Either Josh and Nat's union will head south, as family and friends all too frequently predict, or they'll go the opposites-attract route and discover they were made for each other.
There's never enough meat on the movie's bones to make us care, alas. For starters, the casting is downright schizoid: Byrne, who showed a natural gift for uptight screwball as Kristen Wiig's rival in Bridesmaids, is pretty dandy here too. And Simon Baker is all of a piece as the Lothario who pursues Nat with polished ferocity, never letting on that he sees her furtively remove her wedding band whenever they meet.
But who in his right mind would waste the cracked charms of the great Anna Faris (The House Bunny) in the part of Chloe, the sensible, slightly dumpy ex-girlfriend to whom Josh's eyes keep swiveling.
Mazer doesn't seem terribly invested in the clumsy dance among these four, or in the outcome of their feeble passions. The pacing is sluggish, and the soundtrack does little to support it aside from a few hastily jammed-in snatches of pop. Much footage is wasted on the irritating habits of partners in a 9-month marriage that feels decades older — and not only to the unhappy couple.
Absent an idea about where all this hand-wringing is going or why, Mazer keeps falling back on his prodigious gifts as a sketch-comedy writer. And if you're into British raunch — why is it that American Anglophiles insist on seeing the English as exemplars of polite company? — these bits of business will strike you as raucously funny.
Certainly they give a bunch of character actors their moments in the sun. Minnie Driver is wonderfully acidic as Nat's best friend, a cynic about marriage who nonetheless hangs in for the long haul. The versatile Olivia Colman, a prim Elizabeth, the British queen consort, in Hyde Park on Hudson and pathetically henpecked as Margaret Thatcher's daughter in The Iron Lady, comes wonderfully unhinged as Nat and Josh's therapist. And comedian Stephen Merchant is a stitch as their compulsively inappropriate best man.
But the best that can be said for this brave but misbegotten movie is that it gives good standup. Whatever attachment we might form for the characters or their fates gets lost in thickets of farce and barrages of one-liners. As clever as they are, they sink what might have been a fresh take on the mystery of what it takes to stay the course of love.
Several edging-up-to-Christmas scenes in I Give It a Year made me wonder if the distributors were so flummoxed about how and when to release this strangely discordant little number that they threw up their hands and dumped it in August, there to be swallowed alive by the season's blockbusters. I give it a week.